They are not allowed to enter football stadiums or gather with men to watch sport in public spaces. The ban imposed by state authorities is said to “protect women from the lewd behaviour” of male fans.
The ban goes further with specific measures imposed during the World Cup, such as the prohibition of women from appearing on World Cup billboards. So Iranian broadcasts of matches are delayed by several seconds to censor images of female fans deemed too racy for viewers.
Nevertheless, since the World Cup kicked-off many have been defying the ban by joining the celebrations both in Iran and in Brazil.
Over the weekend, after the match between Iran (known as Team Melli) and Argentina, thousands of female supporters were seen celebrating the team’s plucky performance against Argentina in the streets of the Iranian capital.
Restaurants and cafes in Tehran ignored the ban on broadcasting the World Cup in the presence of women.
“We were told not to turn on the TV because it might create some problems,” a restaurant hostess told CNN by telephone.
In Brazil Iranian female fans have been attending matches in support of their team, who were eventually knocked out of the competition after losing to Bosnia and Herzegovina on Wednesday (25 June).
“(The ban) is a complete nonsense. And so are many other things that the Iranian government does”, said 33 year old Afsoon Shahandeh, who watched the team’s last match at the Arena Fonte Nova stadium, in Salvador, Brazil.
Banned from sport for more than three decades
Earlier this month, female fans and women journalists were banned from attending the World League volleyball matches, an annual men’s international volleyball tournament in Tehran.
Media reports suggest that on the 15 June several Iranian women entered into the Iran v Brazil volleyball match disguised as Brazilian fans.
Iran remains one of the few countries in the world that prohibits women from attending sports matches after a law passed following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said families including women should be left to attend football matches in special sections of stadiums, but the lifting of the ban was overruled by higher authorities.
Six years later in 2012, women in Iran were banned from watching live public screenings of the UEFA European Championships because of the ‘improper’ nature of the environment.
“It is an inappropriate situation when men and women watch football in (movie) theatres together. It is not within the dignity of women to watch football with men”, said Iran’s deputy police commander of social affairs Bahman Kargar.
In November 2013, during a meeting with sports officials FIFA President Sepp Blatter urged Iranian authorities to overturn the rule that forbids women from attending football matches. His call followed a number of other initiatives on the issue in the Middle East and Gulf region.
Empowering women in the Middle East
In recent years, the participation of women and girls in sport has helped challenge gender stereotypes, cultural codes and political strictures in several Middle Eastern countries. The shift has been slow and female fans and sportswomen are still working their way towards equality.
In 2013 Middle Eastern football associations launched a campaign to put women’s games on par with men’s football following a two-day seminar organised by the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) and the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP).
The meeting argued that women had an equal right to play football, irrespective of culture, religion or race, women’s rights to pursue a professional career, and the need to promote equality on and off the pitch had to be protected.
The AFDP Chairman, and FIFA Vice President, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, commented on the importance of the campaign by acknowledging that “an empowered woman further empowers her community.”
Despite the absence in the seminar of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the Kingdom recently announced the opening of its first sports centre for girls alongside the teaching of physical education in the girls’ schools, contributing for the levelling of sport for both genders.
‘I box because I want to advance myself and my country’
High level women’s sport can play a role in breaking down barriers. Recently formed national teams, such as the Bahrain women’s national team founded in 2003, and the participation of female athletes in international sporting competitions have proved that there is interest and willingness from women in the Middle East and the Gulf to attend and participate in sport.
In November 2009, the first home international of the Palestinian women’s national football team saw 10,000 women watch the match against Jordan on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
To Honey Thajieh, one of the founders of the Palestinian national team and its first captain, the emergence of female team in 2003 was seen as ground-breaking initiative.
“During this time, we had a huge media response: people filmed documentaries and journalists wrote about us. They called us ‘The Dream Team’ because we had emerged from both difficult political circumstances during the Second Intifada and a society dominated by men.”
In 2012, Brunei and Qatar allowed their first female athletes to participate in the London Olympics. Since then, Qatar has promised to welcome female fans in stadiums during the 2022 World Cup.
The Afghan boxer Sadaf Rahimi summed up the desire of women across the sporting world in the region when she told the ‘The Boxing girls of Kabul’ documentary, “I box because I want to advance myself and advance Afghanistan”.